One time a close friend of mine was in town for a visit and I decided to show him my earlier drafts of what has now become my science fiction series. This turned into what was essentially a good-natured roast of the story. Every corny line, flat character, forced message, shallow relationship, and cringe worthy scene was mocked. At the end, after we regained our composure from laughing for so long, my friend asked, “How could something so awesome come from something so horrible?”
There is an old joke that perfectly answers my friend. A young trombone player is walking through the streets of New York. On the way he stops by a Church. A priest greets him and notices he is lost. He asks the priest, “ Father, how do I get to Carnegie Hall.” The priest responded, “ Practice, my son. Practice.”
Carnegie Hall is considered one of the greatest orchestra hall in the United States of America. They show case only the greatest musicians and singers. If you want to get there you have to work really hard and be dedicated to your craft as a musician. The same is true with making a horrible story “excellent”. You have to work at it and make that story better.
I often liken the process of making a story better to a process similar to what the Richard Dreyfuss character of Roy Neery goes through in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind as he tries to form this “image” in his mind of Devil’s Tower. He starts with a formless lump of clay on a table and he scrapes at it, chips at it and does all he can but just can’t seem to get it right. Then he throws something at it breaks off the top and at last he sees it. The ugly mound has become the exact image that’s been in his mind.
How does one go about making a story better? How does a writer take that ugly, misshapen mound of mud, dirt and garbage and from that pile of rubbish, craft a good story? If you are perfectly honest with yourself, you’ll know the answer right away. Usually a writer can tell when their story is bad. Really bad. For example, in the earliest drafts of a sci-fi story I’ve been working on, I couldn’t even read the thing all the way through because of this loud noise I kept hearing in the back of my mind: that noise was unmistakable sound of the plot, story and characters going “thud, thud, thud” as they fell down the stairs. I even noticed plot holes so big that the Death Star from Star Wars could have fit inside.
If you can hear a story going “thud” and notice plot holes larger than a small moon, there is only one thing to do. Junk the whole thing and start over with the skeletal remains of the story. There is no such thing as a bad idea for a story, just bad execution. Every moment, every idea you have in your story can be salvaged and used again later. What matters is that germ of the idea.
From that germ, you should start to draft a diagram or chart of the potential plot line for the book. After that is done you should establish who your primary characters should be. Even before you give them so much as thought on paper, you should write mini-biographies on the stars of your story. Don’t worry so much about your supporting cast. They’ll come later. The story and main characters should always come first.
Along with performing these “mundane” tasks, there is something else a good writer must do, even before they set out to write. They should read. Read the books in their chosen genre that paved the way for them. As it is with any field of art, be it music, sculpting or painting, you should learn the tricks and tips from the masters who came before you.
While things like reading books, and writing mini-biographies and plot diagrams may seem like boring chores, they are necessary. My mentor back in college used an illustration from the movie The Karate Kid ( original version). Before Daniel can learn so much as one punch, Mr. Miyagi has him perform simple tasks like waxing a car, painting a fence and mastering “the crane”. Each task helps him develop his sense of balance, focus, coordination and skill. The waxing of the car teaches him how to block, the crane teaches him balance and the painting of the fence teaches him precision.
Once these diagrams and biographies are in place, it is time to start re-writing your story. It should be kept in mind outlines and sketches are like cooking recipes. While they can certainly tell you what are the necessary ingredients to cook the meal, some of the fun is experimenting and going off the path. After all, if you stick to your outline and sketches 100% then you’ll go nowhere. If your story and characters are really alive, they will leap off the page and you’ll be amazed at what you see.
From there, like Ezekial’s vision of the valley of dry bones in the Bible, you start to add muscle, and flesh to your story. These are things like sub-plots, minor characters , romantic side-stories, and even a few red-herrings ( and some blue-herrings too, if you wish). Each little piece of the story has to be carefully chosen to help you craft one simple “draft” of your story.
After this draft is done, your next step is to revise. Revise, revise, revise. Then revise again. Lord of the Rings wasn’t written in a day. Tolstoy did not craft War and Peace in an hour. All books, at least good ones need and should go through multiple drafts. One story I have has had a total of 13 drafts, and it still isn’t “done.”
In this revision process you will find yourself faced with the most difficult challenge. You may have to make some cuts. A character may have to be removed. A joke may have to be deleted. A bit of dialogue may need to be omitted. Some things just might not gel or hamper the flow of the story. That’s fine. It probably doesn’t need to be there. Cut it out. It won’t do you or your story any good to leave it there.
However don’t completely trash it. With the advent of computers and word processors you can save all your work to a disk. So open a new file and put that deleted material there for safe keeping. Who knows? That idea that just didn’t work in that story may work so much better in another.
After you’ve done all this how do you know when your story is truly “done?” It comes down to two simple steps. Step one is make sure you don’t cringe each time you read it. If you can sit back and objectively say, ‘hey, that’s not too bad. I kind of like it,” you’ll know it’s ready.
Then the second step is you simply look at your story and can’t find anything left to revise. At that point, it’s time to hand the story over to some one else and let them read it. Let a fresh set of eyes see your work and help you figure out how to improve the story. This means you may have more revisions to do. That’s fine. Good writing is like a Superman adventure: it’s a never-ending battle against the evil forces of a bad story.
Those are the secrets to overcoming bad story. In an interview for Toy Story 3, Bobby Potasta, one of the Supervising Advisors from Pixar Studios said, “We make bad movies all the time. Almost every film of ours has been a horrible film at some point, but we’re very good about being honest with each other and saying, ‘This is horrible. Here are some ways to make it better’.” Now you know the ways to make your story better. So use them.